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Rowan Atkinson: ‘I always liked the definition of art as the rejection of the status quo’

The actor said: “I’m a great believer that there is no subject about which you should not be able to make jokes. And I think that’s something which I do worry about in the modern world.”

Can less people take a joke nowadays? It certainly seems like there’s less room for reasonable debate about whether a joke should be said.

Rowan Atkinson is one of the most famous funny faces on the planet. For the last four decades he has created some of the best comedy characters, from Blackadder to Mr Bean, so he has been on the frontline as attitudes towards comedy have shifted.

Promoting his new Netflix series, Man vs Bee, he spoke about how his own comedic sensibilities have changed.

Atkinson said: “I don’t think my taste has changed in comedy. I mean, all jokes have got to find an audience and it’s the audience that tends to change with time. Certain things are in fashion and certain things are out of fashion. But what’s in fashion is just about the way people see the world around them. And the world around us changes all the time.

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“I’m not talking about the appropriateness of jokes or the correctness in political or social terms of jokes,” he continued. “It’s just the jokes should be about your human experience. And our human experience is developing. You couldn’t make jokes about mobile phones 25 years ago because nobody had a smartphone. The world changes.”

This week, Atkinson spent a long time trending on social media after speaking about how it’s comedy’s job to offend. But most of the debate throwing around accusations of ‘wokeness’ and ‘snowflakes’ and ‘cancel culture’ missed the more nuanced point Atkinson was making.

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He clarified some of his thoughts on the topic.

“I’m a great believer that there is no subject about which you should not be able to make jokes. And I think that’s something which I do worry about in the modern world. The words ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ are applied very often to the arts and to creative things. And the words should and shouldn’t don’t really belong in the arts.

“I always liked the definition of art as the rejection of the status quo. So whatever we’ve got, our job is to say, ‘Hang on, what about this other way of looking at things?’”

While many comedy films and programmes date as time moves on, Atkinson’s characters have a timeless quality to them. Mr Bean and Blackadder especially are still winning new audiences today.

Atkinson explained why he thinks that is.

“Well, because it’s about – or at least I like to think it’s about – the human experience. That changes with the props and the technology and the world that’s around us, but in the end, human attitudes don’t change too much.

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“You know, the human attitudes of fear or insecurity or overconfidence or anger or inappropriate behaviour remains potentially a rich source of comedy. Those characteristics do tend to be timeless.”

His latest character, who is definitely enduring a very relatable side of human experience, appears in Man vs Bee. In the new Netflix series, Atkinson plays bumbling house sitter Trevor Bingley, who’s met his match in the shape of a bee.

The house he’s supposed to be looking after is filled with expensive artworks and super expensive supercars. Can he manage to get rid of the bee without causing untold damage?

You can find out when Man vs Bee airs on Netflix from 24 June. You can also read our review of the show here.

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